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Art and Politics: have the issues changed since the 19th century?

WWI, more than any other conflict, charged the most potent images internationally. It was the first war to introduce technological warfare and artists experienced the war first hand. With the outbreak of WWI comes a rise of works on paper: artists turned to prints and print cycles as the war progressed, an idea to advocate social and political change. These German Expressionist prints chart the artistic response: from one of optimistic premonition of WW1 followed by one of increasingly darkened sensibility of disillusionment and pessimism. German avant-garde art turned from international to national with the beginning of the war.

WWII also brought about new ideas in the relationship of art to politics, especially in the realm of collecting. Reisenfeld’s article states, “The art we have collected…helps us to comprehend the rise of Hitler and the terrible increase of anti-Semitism… [These works] show the history and critique the institutions. We did not shy away from unappealing subject matter, as other collectors often do, because this is how it was – the sick, the crippled, the starving, the street battles, desperation and angst.” This quotation sums up the reasoning behind the great increase of Jewish collectors of German art deemed degenerate by Hitler and his Third Reich. During the WWII period, all art was politically and ideologically driven, no art was neutral- both in pro-Nazism and anti-Nazism. We can use the Degenerate Art exhibition from 1937 as an example, which was the most frequented exhibition ever created. This exhibition was not a positive celebration of German Expressionism and Dada, but a negative exhibition associated with the term “degenerate,” which applied to racial arguments, as the term degenerate means a disease brought about through modernity and influx of foreign elements. Jewish people were of course looked upon as the main carrier of this disease. Nazis felt that this art represented a decomposition of human psyche, body and society. They encouraged the visitors to look at how much money was wasted on an art that could have been used to reconstruct the individual and society. The American Jew, in particular, through collecting, seeks “to recapture something of a personal past while preserving the art that the Nazis sought to destroy.” It is evident that political, ideologically based reasoning for the collecting of, the dealing of, or creating of art, was more prevalent post world wars than in the 19th century. WWII, with its extreme nationalism- one blood, one race, one soil- would mark the greatest generator for an art that was politically enforced and motivated.  

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